I get a lot of email from people overseas trying to figure out how to get into Japan and get started. Although I have covered this topic at some length in past columns, I'll go through it once more as a case study. Also, as always, I will start with a disclaimer. I am not a specialist in Japanese immigration procedures. There are perfectly good immigration consultants, many of whom used to actually work at the Immigration Bureau and therefore know what to do and who to call to make things happen. Costs vary, but usually you can get a consultant to look after your whole case for less than JPY150,000.

The most common reason I see for people wanting to come to Japan is that they have had a girlfriend or boyfriend who is Japanese and they want to find out more about the person they fell in love with, and their country. There's nothing wrong with this, but it usually means that there has been little or no forward planning and that finding a job is going to be a matter of luck. In this case, a young French guy, who I'll call Henry, contacted me a few months ago and asked for my help. Sure enough, he'd met a girl from Osaka and wanted to join her as she returned home from 3 years of study in Europe.

My first couple of e-mails with Henry were to test his resolve in actually coming to Japan in the first place. I pointed out to him that he probably wouldn't be able to get work in his chosen profession - biochemistry - and might have to end up teaching part-time French classes, or worse, work as a cook somewhere. I also pointed out that Osaka is gripped by the recession even worse than Tokyo, and that there would be fewer opportunities. Nevertheless, he persisted, so we moved to the next step - that of getting into Japan in the first place.

In Henry's case, as a European citizen, it is easy for him to apply for a 3-month Visitor's visa - renewable at least several times, providing he can prove that he is independently financial and not working illegally in Japan. If he'd been from a third-world country then it is likely he'd only get a 2-week visa and probably not be allowed to renew it - thus reducing the usefulness of coming here at all. People from such countries are probably better advised to first come to Japan on a student visa, learn the language, then seek opportunities which can be cemented after returning to their home country.

Henry asked me if he could get a job before actually coming to Japan, so that he could simply get a work visa from the get-go. I pointed out that this was a valid strategy, but the problem was that he had to get that job first. At this point, he took some time off to contact a few French companies with offices in Japan to see if they'd hire him and send him to Japan - but got no takers. Everyone had the same story: either he had to have an outstanding international track record in sales or senior corporate management (particularly in the fashion industry), or he could start as a trainee IF he had fluent Japanese capability...

Henry hasn't gotten to Japan yet and is still laying his plans, but I expect that when he gets here he'll probably do odd jobs to support himself, and will stay with his girlfriend to keep costs down. Given his background, one possibility will be for him to do some specialized English-to-French medical and biomedical translations. For languages other than English, usually Japanese companies use local foreign specialists who may not be able to speak Japanese but who do know the topic well and can speak English as a strong second language (i.e., they translate from English to French). Biochemistry is a perfect industry for this type of work.

Henry might also find some opportunities as an English teacher in Osaka, as he doesn't have much of an accent, and is a friendly guy. He might also land a job in a smaller service company as a salesperson to some of the Kobe-based foreign consumer products giants (P&G, Nestle, Eli Lilly, etc.) - selling IT, training, research, PR, or other services to foreign managers of such companies.

If he is successful in coming to Japan and landing a job, even a very modest one (so long as he finds a company willing to sponsor him), he will simply need to go to Seoul or somewhere else nearby to get his certificate of eligibility validated then re-enter Japan to start employment. I've heard stories of people who've been able to get visas without leaving the country, but the usual thing is to simply go to the Japanese consulates in either Seoul or Hong Kong to get the certificate validated - the whole process taking less than a week if there are no complications.

Things don't sound too promising for Henry, but at least he has started to take Japanese lessons. Of course, I told him that he should take intensive classes for the first 6 months, before starting any kind of job. After that, he will become a lot more mobile and attractive to employers in Japan. I imagine that he's not worried about hardship, though. Love has a way of helping people get through the hardest of times...!